Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclastby Andrew Edmund Kersten
Clarence Darrow is best remembered for his individual cases, whether defending the thrill killers Leopold and Loeb or John Scopes’s right to teach evolution in the classroom. In the first full-length biography of Darrow in decades, the historian Andrew E. Kersten narrates the complete life of America’s most legendary lawyer and the struggle that defined
Clarence Darrow is best remembered for his individual cases, whether defending the thrill killers Leopold and Loeb or John Scopes’s right to teach evolution in the classroom. In the first full-length biography of Darrow in decades, the historian Andrew E. Kersten narrates the complete life of America’s most legendary lawyer and the struggle that defined it, the fight for the American traditions of individualism, freedom, and liberty in the face of the country’s inexorable march toward modernity.
Prior biographers have all sought to shoehorn Darrow, born in 1857, into a single political party or cause. But his politics do not define his career or enduring importance. Going well beyond the familiar story of the socially conscious lawyer and drawing upon new archival records, Kersten shows Darrow as early modernity’s greatest iconoclast. What defined Darrow was his response to the rising interference by corporations and government in ordinary working Americans’ lives: he zealously dedicated himself to smashing the structures and systems of social control everywhere he went. During a period of enormous transformations encompassing the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, Darrow fought fiercely to preserve individual choice as an ever more corporate America sought to restrict it.
“Forty years ago, Clarence Darrow’s life story inspired me to sell my successful publishing company and found a civil rights law firm. Readers of Andrew E. Kersten’s riveting new account of this great infectious trial lawyer will no doubt consider leaving life as usual and joining Darrow’s quest for justice. Kersten’s well-written book reveals Darrow as an early crusader against corporate abuse of human rights in the mold of Upton Sinclair, Ralph Nader, and Michael Moore.” —Morris Dees, founder and chief trial counsel, Southern Poverty Law Center
“Andrew E. Kersten’s Clarence Darrow is a superb biography, at once highly readable and historically astute. It is full of personality and politics, a compelling narrative that illuminates how Darrow’s complex and contradictory legal career helped define and animate twentieth-century American liberalism.” —Nelson Lichtenstein, MacArthur Foundation Chair in History, UC Santa Barbara, and author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business
“Kersten explodes Darrow’s messy, complicated life . . . This is no hagiography, but rather a portrait of a truly human character trying to effect change while battling private demons.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The brilliance and daring of Darrow's legal strategies make this skillful, absorbing biography most riveting, especially with his masterful handling of the controversial Leopold-Loeb case, the unpopular Scopes ‘monkey trial,’ and the Sweet case, where a black family defended their home from attacks by their white neighbors.” —Publishers Weekly
“A richly detailed but accessible account of Clarence Darrow’s complicated life . . . Unlike many Darrow biographies, this one shows how much more there was to the man than law and politics. Highly recommended for all interested readers and all libraries.” —Stephen L. Hupp, Library Journal
A tightly packed biography of "labor's lyrical lawyer" and civil-liberties advocate.
In pursuing Darrow's lifetime (1857–1938) of passionate public service, Kersten (History and Labor Studies/Univ. of Wisconsin, Green Bay;Labor's Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during World War II, 2006, etc.) is mostly forgiving of his subject's foibles—for example, his ends-justifies-the-means approach that tested friends' loyalties and got him indicted for attempted bribery of a juror in the 1911Los Angeles Timesbombingcase. Darrow was driven to address the inequity between rich and poor, no doubt influenced by his activist parents among a big family in Kinsman, Ohio. Darrow was a teacher before he was drawn to study law, which promised riches and fame. Moving from the small town to Chicago changed his life, both by introducing him to Henry George'sProgress and Poverty and immersion into Democratic politics. From his work as a lawyer for the Chicago North Western Railroad, he was jolted by the Pullman strike of 1894, organized by Eugene Debs; he joined the defense of the railway strikers to fight what he believed was a pernicious conspiracy "against the Constitution and the laws and the liberties of the people." His first few defeats were shattering and public, tempered resounding triumphs like the trial of the Oshkosh sawmill unionists in 1898, the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission of 1904 and defense of "Big Bill" Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners in 1907. His life was often in shambles—two troubled marriages, a lack of money, ill health—but Darrow was also remarkably resilient until a late age, making stump speeches for the Allies during World War I and defending evolution in the notorious Scopes trial of 1925. Kersten explodes Darrow's messy, complicated life, and concludes with a helpful bibliographic essay for students.
This is no hagiography, but rather a portrait of a truly human character trying to effect change while battling private demons.
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Read an Excerpt
A Midwestern Childhood
Clarence Darrow read autobiographies and biographies with suspicion. He disliked their self-serving nature, particularly those beginning with a list of famous ancestors. “The purpose of linking themselves by blood and birth to some well-known family or personage,” he wrote, stimulated only the ego and little else.1 Like most people’s, Clarence Darrow’s distant relatives had no direct connection to him other than to set in motion a series of events that eventually resulted in his birth. That said, Darrow’s immediate family and his childhood, especially the relationships with his mother and father, mattered to some degree. But those youthful experiences did not create the Clarence Darrow, that transformative and towering historical figure, that we know. Darrow’s story is not a slow march to greatness and influence. Rather, his initial notions about right and wrong, about fairness and equality, and about citizenship and liberty sprang from his childhood experiences and his environment, the rural Midwest.
Despite writing about his childhood himself, Darrow had misgivings about exploring the “sacred ground” of his youth. We ought to heed his warning, especially since most of the information about his childhood comes from his own writings. Like others who have written about their pasts, Darrow sometimes blurred the lines between reporting his life and artfully creating it. It is best to see his two autobiographies—especially the second, which was published in 1932 and titled The Story of My Life—as the iconoclastic lawyer’s closing statements in the defense of his reputation and legacy. Both works have truths in them, but both are also part of Darrow’s project to build his own public image as a hedonistic pessimist, a skeptic, and an unerring, unstinting, and unflappable champion of freedom and liberty. But as we shall see, Darrow made mistakes, distilled his views, winnowed his causes, and changed his alliances. All this is largely absent in his own writings about his life. As he explained in The Story of My Life, “autobiography is never entirely true.” This much we know: Darrow’s family was an old one and one that belonged to the working class and had at various times fought privilege. Tongue in cheek, he once wrote that some Darrow genealogists claimed a relationship with Adam and Eve, but that he “should not like to guarantee the title.” In fact, his pedigree went back to England, likely among the lower sorts who came to the New World seeking the fortunes that they were unable to make in the Old. “But this does not matter,” Darrow wrote dismissively. “I am sure that my forbears [sic] run a long, long way back of that, even—but what of it anyhow?”
Darrow saw himself as a product of chance, not relatives. He stood at the end of a long line of historical accidents, odd twists, and freak happenings. “When I think of the chances that I was up against,” he remarked, “it scares me to realize how easily I might have missed out. Of all the infinite accidents of fate farther back of that, I do not care or dare to think.” And ever the pessimist, at the end of his life, he mockingly wrote that “had I known about life in advance and been given any choice in the matter, I most likely would have declined the adventure.”
Darrow was correct: he did not have that choice. But he was not a completely self-made man. For Darrow, that familial atmosphere of which Henry Adams spoke was as much about place as about a family whose members were revolutionaries and skeptics and farmers who struggled to eke out a living.
In 1630, the first Darrow arrived in the New World. He was among a party of sixteen that held a royal land grant for the town of New London, Connecticut, along the Thames River, where they scratched out a meager existence. These Connecticut Darrows were also revolutionaries, forgetting, as Clarence put it, “the lavish gift of the King” in order to fight at Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Brandywine. Thus Darrow once joked that he was eligible for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, “although I would not exactly fit their organization, for, amongst other handicaps, I am proud of my rebel ancestry.”
The Connecticut Darrows prospered moderately for more than a century and a half before branching out. In 1795, the Ammiras Darrow family left Connecticut for Boonville, a small town in upstate New York. Financial success remained just beyond the family’s reach, so in 1824, after Ammiras’s passing, his son (and Clarence’s grandfather) Jedediah led his spouse and seven children on another trek west along the Lake Trail, which ran parallel to the bluffs along Lake Erie. This arduous and long five-hundred-mile trip led them to Trumbull County, Ohio. Their reward was inexpensive but excellent farmland in Kinsman.
Clarence Darrow’s maternal ancestors, the Eddys, shared a similar migration story following the same path to the Western Reserve. Darrow rightly estimated that both families were “poor and obscure, else they would have stayed where they were.” John and Samuel Eddy arrived in Plymouth in 1630. Later, like so many of his contemporaries, Great-grandfather Eddy drove west with purpose, moving to Connecticut, then to upstate New York, and finally to Windsor, Ohio, in the Western Reserve.
The families homesteaded two dozen miles apart. Given that distance in the mid-nineteenth century, it was highly unlikely for a Darrow and an Eddy to meet, let alone marry and raise a family. But Amirus Darrow and Emily Eddy—Clarence’s parents—did meet and fall in love while attending Ellsworth Academy in Amboy, Ohio, thirty-five miles from Windsor and sixty from Kinsman. The Eddys, who were quite well off, had no trouble sending Emily, but the Darrows had to scrape together the money to send Amirus. Emily Eddy and Amirus Darrow became schoolyard sweethearts with a shared passion for reading. Amirus’s thirst for knowledge and his zeal for books were legendary in Clarence’s hometown. Amirus had a personal library unlike any other. In his 1893 reminiscence, Kinsman native Colonel Ralph Plumb recalled that “nearly every house had a Bible and an almanac, but beyond that books were very scarce.” A neighbor might have another book, like “Riley’s Narrative [but that] was lent from house to house and did good work in cultivating a taste for reading."
Outside the family, Amirus’s book collection must have seemed an outlandish, immoral indulgence. Even Clarence Darrow thought it odd that his parents were such bibliophiles. No one else in either extended family was. Aside from one of his mother’s brothers who “seemed fairly well-informed,” Darrow could not remember another relative who “cared at all for books.” Furthermore, Emily’s parents “were inclined to believe that a love of books was a distinct weakness, and likely to develop into a very bad habit.”
Darrow said the same of his father’s family. However, this was no mere bad habit. Amirus never had much money, yet he bought books like an aristocrat. His house was littered with them. “They were in bookcases, on tables, on chairs, and even on the floor. The house was small, the family large, the furnishings meager, but there were books whichever way one turned.”
Like their parents, Amirus and Emily Darrow emphasized education in their children’s upbringing, even to the point of straining the family’s finances. Amirus was a learned man. In 1845, after they graduated from Ellsworth Academy, Emily and Amirus married and moved to Meadville, Pennsylvania, so Amirus could attend Allegheny College, a Methodist institution. He did not finish. Likely his faith in Methodism ended after the schism in the American Methodist Church over slavery. Instead, Amirus and Emily, who had become abolitionists, joined the Unitarian congregation in Meadville. In 1849, Amirus completed his theology degree but decided not to become a minister. By that time, he and his wife both were freethinkers, who sought the answers to life’s questions through investigation, reason, and rigorous debate. They were also political activists, seeking justice for the oppressed.
Perhaps the most meaningful and influential part of Clarence’s childhood relates to his parents’ freethinking beliefs. Amirus and Emily belonged to one of the most important intellectual, political, and cultural movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Freethinkers influenced all aspects of American life from politics and politicians such as Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) to social movements like abolitionism and women’s rights. Both Amirus and Emily adopted free thought well before its golden age between Reconstruction and the First World War. Historian Susan Jacoby has defined American free thought as an encompassing philosophy “running the gamut from the truly antireligious—those who regarded all religion as a form of superstition and wished to reduce its influence in every aspect of society—to those who adhered to a private, unconventional faith revering some form of God or Providence but at odds with orthodox religious authority.” What united freethinkers was a “rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earthly existence—a conviction that the affairs of human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world.”15 Both Amirus and Emily were avid readers of the great American and French skeptics, they participated in free thought–inspired movements to emancipate slaves and married women, and they were unflinching supporters of public education. And yet they celebrated Christmas, and Emily never completely broke from the church. Moreover, unlike many freethinkers, Emily was a temperance advocate. Thus, as freethinkers Darrow’s parents were middle of the road.
In 1849, forgoing any idea of becoming a minister and a minister’s wife, Amirus and Emily, along with their two sons, Everett and Channing, moved to Farmdale, Ohio, a short distance from Kinsman. Amirus took up the trades of his forefathers and became a furniture maker as well as an undertaker. Emily assumed the role of the rural housewife, managing the household and taking care of their children: Edward Everett (who went by Everett), born in 1846; Channing, born in 1849; Mary, in 1852; Herbert (who died in infancy), in 1854; Clarence, in 1857; Hubert, in 1860; Herman, in 1863; and, finally, Jenny, in 1869. All but Everett, Channing, and Jenny were born in Farmdale. The family had moved back to Kinsman in 1864. Both Kinsman and Farmdale were small, rural towns that owed their existence to the banking, insurance, legal, agricultural, and modest cultural services that they offered farmers. They were the places for farmers to buy implements, sell their produce, mail letters and packages, consult a lawyer, deposit money, attend holiday parades, and join local celebrations.
Darrow maintained an uneasy love affair with his childhood hometown. Kinsman was confining, stilted, intolerant, and homogeneous, but it also was as ageless as it was idyllic. Nestled in a sleepy green valley near the west bank of the Shenango River Lake, and close to Pymatuning, Stratton, and Sugar creeks, Kinsman had the indelible mark of a New England village, as the writers of Ohio’s Work Progress Administration guide described it. It was also a quintessential small Ohio town—much like the hometowns of other Ohio notables: Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), Thomas Edison (1847–1931), Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893), and William Dean Howells (1837–1920). Kinsman had a gristmill, a sawmill, a blacksmith, a shoemaker (in whose shop men met to argue about politics), a carriage factory, a town square, a whiskey distillery, a tavern, a few churches—Presbyterian, Methodist, and Catholic—and houses that denoted the class of the townspeople. The largest houses were near the center of town, with the fanciest of them prominently positioned on one end of the town square.
Kinsman was known both for its groves of heavy timber—especially oak, beech, maple, hickory, chestnut, elm, and white pine—and for its soil, which was “of a superior quality,” according to the History of Trumbull and Mahoning Counties. Most farmers grew corn and raised cows, chickens, and pigs. They made money, however, from the wheat crop. Kinsman never had a large population, at most a few hundred, and from a child’s perspective the town seemed rather staid and uninspiring. “If I had chosen to be born I probably should not have selected Kinsman, Ohio, for that honor,” Darrow wrote in his second autobiography. “[I]nstead, I would have started in a hard and noisy city where the crowds surged back and forth as if they knew where they were going, and why.” Yet Darrow could never escape the fact that his intellectual roots were in small-town America. As he wrote in the very next sentence of that later autobiography, “my consciousness returns to the old place. My mind goes back to Kinsman because I lived there in childhood, and to me it was once the centre of the world.”
His first book, a semiautobiographical novel, Farmington, was a thinly disguised reminiscence of his hometown. Looking back after he had already established himself as a crusading lawyer and a political insider of national significance, Darrow claimed that the roots of his philosophy of life had sprung from the homespun, sleepy confines of rural Ohio. Midwestern farm life, he wrote, taught him some cherished basic life lessons about pessimism, fatalism, and skepticism as well as about liberty, freedom, democracy, and tolerance. In these rural areas, neighbors depended upon one another so much as to look past and forgive what they might label as antisocial behavior—of course, within reason. Tolerance, even of town skeptics like Clarence’s father, was a valued ideal. Moreover, Darrow imbibed and imbued midwestern sensibilities about charity, decency, fairness, and citizenship. Like his neighbors, he cherished the liberties and freedoms that rural life afforded, from owning land to profiting from hard labor. At the same time, he came to reject the darker sides of small-community life, particularly its tendency to promote intellectually suffocating homogeneity, especially in church and in school, and certain kinds of provincialism that were antithetical to skepticism. He also drew other, more saturnine philosophical lessons from his childhood in Trumbull County that eventually lent themselves to his pessimistic outlook on life.
Clarence Darrow had a similarly complex relationship with his immediate family. With only a few exceptions, he claimed his siblings hardly had any significant impact upon his life, and as an adult he did not keep close tabs on most of them. “I was only one of a large family, mostly older than myself; but while I was only one, I was the chief one, and the rest were important only as they affected me,” he wrote egotistically. And there was a pecking order among the young Darrows. “It must have been the rule of our family that each of the children should have the right to give orders to those younger than himself.” At work or at play, the children rarely got along. “We quarreled,” he wrote, “simply because we liked to hurt each other.” Chores also brought out their ugly side. “We children were supposed to help with the chores around the house; but, as near as I can remember, each one was always afraid that he would do more than his share.” Of course, the exception was when someone was ill. In his first autobiography, Darrow recalled a time when his brother, most likely Everett, was quite sick. “I was wretched with fear and grief,” he recounted. “I remember how I went over every circumstance of our relations with each other, and how I vowed that I would always be kind and loving to him if his life were saved.” The brother lived, but the young Clarence did not change; neither did anyone else in the family. Darrow blamed it on their New England roots. His parents, he surmised, “were raised in the Puritan school of life, and I fancy that they would have felt that demonstrations of affection were signs of weakness rather than of love.”
Although they had his respect and admiration later in his life, Darrow felt alienated from his parents. “Both my father and mother must have been kind and gentle and tender to the large family that so sorely taxed their time and strength; and yet, as I look back, I do not have the feeling of closeness that should unite the parents and the child.” Still, they did affect the man Darrow became. And while most biographers have focused heavily on Amirus’s role as father and as a teacher, believing that he had the greatest responsibility in shaping his son, Clarence himself believed that it was his mother, not his father, who was more influential in his life.
Sadly, we don’t know much about Emily or her relationship with Clarence. In his 1932 autobiography, he praised her maternal abilities. She was “efficient and practical” and was “the one who saved the family from dire want” as her husband spent much of the family’s income on books. She also made up for Amirus’s lack of business and financial acumen. Darrow felt “that it was her ability and devotion that kept us together, that made so little go so far, and did so much to give my father a chance for the study and contemplation that made up the real world in which he lived.” Thus, “through my mother’s good sense my father was able to give his children a glimpse into the realm of ideas and ideals in which he himself really lived.” Little is known about Emily’s outlook on life. She was a prohibitionist and women’s rights advocate. She shared her husband’s views on religion, slavery, prohibition, and party politics. Darrow remembered her taking him to temperance rallies. She also shared Amirus’s parenting skills. “I cannot recall that my mother ever gave me a kiss or a caress,” Darrow wrote. But he did remember “that when I had a fever, and lay on my bed for what seemed endless weeks, she let no one else come near me by day or night … she seemed ever beside me with the tenderest and gentlest touch.”
Why we don’t know more about Emily is unclear. Her quiet, stern, and stolid parenting might have kept Clarence too far from her emotionally for him to remember more. Further, she died young after a short illness at the age of forty-eight, in 1871, when Clarence was fourteen years old. He was away from home at the time and “never could tell whether I was sorry or relieved that I was not there.” He did remember “the blank despair that settled over the home when we realized that her tireless energy and devoted love were lost forever.” The cause of death was never determined. Darrow biographer Charles Yates Harrison asserted that “years of drudgery for her visionary husband and her children at last took their toll.” Or she may have contracted a viral infection that devastated her body. No one knows for sure. Despite the family’s status as the village freethinking outsiders, much of Kinsman turned out for the funeral and burial next to Herbert near the Presbyterian church. It was a shock that never left Clarence, and her early death may have caused him to exaggerate her influence upon him. Regardless, upon reflection years later, he marked her death as a moment that “awakened me to conscious life.” In other words, he grew up after his mother’s death and to her “infinite kindness and sympathy” owed some substantial part of the empathy for which he would be known.
There is no denying the intellectual inheritance of Clarence’s freethinking father, but it was not as large or immediate as others have surmised. Clarence and Amirus had a close, meaningful, yet difficult and contentious relationship. Later in life, Darrow was quite sympathetic to him. He praised his father’s character, writing that Amirus was a “just and upright man,” “kind and gentle” as well as “a visionary and dreamer,” always with his nose in a book. “Even when he sorely needed the money he would neglect his work to read some book.” Amirus stayed up late to read and write. His penchant for reading over work partly made him an outcast among his neighbors, who adhered apparently both to Puritan ideals of labor and to Ben Franklin’s quips about industry and thrift. They still bought his furniture and utilized his undertaking services, but they were skeptical about his commitment to his family and to the community. To add further injury to his social repute, Amirus avoided church. In Kinsman, the Presbyterians outnumbered all other denominations, and they had the largest church on the tallest hill. Amirus came to reject Christianity, not just Presbyterianism. Because of his affinity for book learning and his rejection of congregational life, Amirus became “the village infidel.” His life was rather lonely, especially after Emily died. The only two neighbors who visited Amirus regularly were the old Presbyterian parson and the town doctor, both of whom came to talk about ideas and books. Likely only they comprehended the unquenchable thirst for knowledge that drove Darrow’s father to stay up late at night in scholarly pursuit. Darrow never found out what his father was researching. Amirus spent his adult life laboring under his lamps, hoping his reading and writing would propel him out of Kinsman. They never did. “Years of work and resignation had taught him to deny [his ambitions] even to himself, and slowly and pathetically he must have let go his hold upon that hope and ambition which alone make the thoughtful man cling fast to life.”
All that reading and writing did convince Amirus Darrow that there was more to life than Kinsman, and he wanted his children to experience it. As his famous son wrote, “he looked at the high hills to the east, and the high hills to the west, and up and down the narrow country road that led to the outside world. He knew that beyond the high hills was a broad inviting plain, with opportunity and plenty, with fortune and fame; but as he looked at the hills he could see no way to pass beyond.” As Amirus gave up his ambitions, “he slowly looked to his children to satisfy the dreams that life once held out to him.” Like his parents, Darrow’s father thought that the way out of Kinsman was a sound education. Clarence himself did not remember a time when he did not read. Probably under Emily’s tutelage, it started with lettered blocks on the kitchen floor and gradually moved to books. Darrow learned his letters “quickly and early” but not as early as Everett, who was something of a prodigy. Amirus fiercely pushed his children, telling them when they complained that his idol, the British philosopher and women’s rights advocate John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), had begun studying Greek when he was only three years old. Darrow felt that Mill’s father must have been a “cruel” and “unnatural” parent who made miserable not only “the life of his little boy, but thousands of other boys whose fathers could see no reason why their sons should be outdone by John Stuart Mill.” Regardless, Clarence pressed on with his lessons. Darrow despised his Latin studies perhaps most of all and argued with his father about their utility, telling his teacher that he did “not want to be a scholar” and that he would have no use for Latin. His father weathered the storm stoically and then made his son recite the Roman word for “table” in every case. “Slowly and painfully,” he learned mensa, mensae, mensae, mensam, mensa, and mensa. Despite his griping, Darrow had access to the town’s, probably the county’s, best library. It was there that he came to share his parents’ love of reading, though not necessarily what his father wanted him to read. Still, he read what they read: Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Thomas Paine (1737–1809), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and Voltaire (1694–1778). He also encountered Charles Darwin (1809–1882), Thomas H. Huxley (1825–1895), Robert G. Ingersoll (1833–1899), and Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). As an adult he came to adore these thinkers and writers.
Radical free thought was only one element of the atmosphere in the Darrow home; there was a political charge to it too. Like his parents, Clarence became quite an active and engaged citizen but, significantly, not as a young man. Amirus and Emily were integrally involved in the major political and social reform movements of the antebellum period. Both were abolitionists and thus members of the most important and successful reform movement of the nineteenth century. They were not alone. Trumbull County was antislavery territory. Local abolitionist leaders met in the Darrows’ distinctive octagon-shaped house, and Clarence remembered hearing about Frederick Douglass (1818–1895), Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883), Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), and John Brown (1800–1859). Darrow lore maintains that the household was a stop for the Underground Railroad, but it is very unlikely that Amirus and Emily would have risked their young family even for such a noble cause. Abolitionist work was extraordinarily dangerous.
Similarly implausible is Irving Stone’s claim that Clarence Darrow met John Brown, who allegedly “put his hand on the boy’s head and said, ‘The Negro has too few friends; you and I must never desert him.’” Darrow was two when Brown was hanged for his raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Nonetheless, the Darrow home was always open to agitators and reformers who wandered through, looking for a warm meal, a soft bed, and sympathetic company on their journeys.
Debunked myths do not diminish the Darrow family’s commitment to ending slavery. Amirus and Emily named three of the first four sons after famous abolitionists. Everett was named after Edward Everett (1794–1865), who must have appealed to Amirus for many reasons. He was the first American to earn a Ph.D. Like Amirus, Everett was also a Unitarian minister who had put down the collar for other pursuits. Everett, who became noted for his two-hour oration at Gettysburg before President Abraham Lincoln’s legendary brief closing remarks, became a Whig representative and later a senator from Massachusetts and was a moderate politician but at times outspoken on the issue of slavery. Likewise, the Darrows named their second son Channing to honor William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), the Unitarian minister, prolific writer, and early abolitionist. Clarence Seward Darrow’s namesake was William Henry Seward (1801–1872), also an abolitionist, who helped found the Republican Party and became Lincoln’s secretary of state. Appreciative of the political allusion of his middle name, Clarence never liked his first name, which he thought was inane.
Abolitionism was only one part, albeit an important one, of Amirus’s and Emily’s political views. They were attracted to all sorts of progressive and radical ideas, including prohibition and nineteenth-century environmental design. For example in 1864, Amirus and Emily purchased one of the few octagonal houses in the nation. Built in the 1850s, the house owed its design to Orson Squire Fowler (1809–1887), a phrenologist and sex scientist who advocated the shape as a way to increase sunshine and ventilation in the house, reduce heating costs, and facilitate communication between rooms and thus among family members. In short, it was to make the family more comfortable and interconnected. Thus, as Fowler wrote, his “radical improvement of both external form and internal arrangement” was designed “to bring comfortable dwellings within the reach of the poorer classes.” According to Clarence, the Darrows’ house as well as Amirus’ and Emily’s freethinking beliefs made them “strangers in a more or less hostile land.”
In truth, Kinsman was not all that hostile to the Darrows, who lived largely unaccosted by their neighbors. Amirus reveled in his status as the village infidel, which did not cost him much standing or business in the small town. The Darrow children were always able to make many friends. As Clarence wrote, the neighbors “thought [his father was] queer but hardly dangerous.” Moreover, “they didn’t carry any dislike of him to his children.” In fact, as soon as they could, Amirus and Emily sent their children to school, which despite its advantages did not emphasize free thought in the least. Darrow later figured that “schools probably became general and popular because parents did not want their children about the house all day.” They were “a place to send them to get them out of the way.” And “if, perchance, they could learn something it was so much to the good.” For its time, Ohio’s tax-supported public education system was certainly adequate. Darrow claimed that there was never “a time when I did not like to go to school.” However, he seemed to hate all his teachers and all his subjects. His introduction to public education hardly augured well. Decades after his first day of school, he still remembered events quite clearly. He was four, and his older brothers and sister had walked him to the schoolhouse. “After being in school for hours, I must have grown weary and restless, sitting so motionless and still.” And then the teacher disciplined Clarence by boxing his ears. He ran out of the classroom and all the way home, his “bitter tears” sprinkling “every foot of the way.” Darrow harbored his anger for years.
Darrow dismissed his early education, the cornerstone of which was the series of McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers. It did not prepare him well for a life as public crusader and politico. William Holmes McGuffey (1800–1873), who had also grown up in Trumbull County, Ohio, was an ordained Presbyterian minister and an early advocate of the free, common schools. In the 1830s, he began publishing his primers as a way not only to advance literacy but also to improve the morality of America’s youth. Even sixty years after reading them, Darrow recalled the religious and ethical stories. He thought them “silly.” But when he was a child, “it never occurred to me that those tales were utterly impossible lies which average children should have seen through.” Through his readers, McGuffey sought to inculcate inhibitions to things that Darrow believed were not only enjoyable but also part of American freedom. For example, there was this ditty about avoiding tobacco: “I’ll never chew tobacco / No, it is a filthy weed. I’ll never put it in my mouth / Said little Robert Reed.” Or this one: “He’d puff along the open streets as if he had no shame. He’d sit beside the tavern door / And there he’d do the same.” He also recalled the prohibitionist lines and implied threats in this refrain spoken from a girl’s point of view: “The lips that touch liquor / Shall never touch mine.” Spurning McGuffey’s readers, which had become obsolete by the 1930s, Darrow gleefully wrote that “from what I see and hear of the present generation I should guess that Doctor McGuffey and his ilk lived in vain.”
Aside from the readings from McGuffey, boys spent a considerable time practicing “pieces,” or small speeches, while girls worked on perfecting their essay style. The last day of school was devoted to showcasing the pupils’ talents. Darrow remembered one year when his father was able to attend. The boys had memorized pieces about patriotism, valor in battle, and temperance. Darrow especially recalled a red-haired boy with freckles and a short neck who recited “How Have the Mighty Fallen,” which was about Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon and how they all failed because of strong ambition and strong drink. Although Darrow had presented a good piece, on the way home his father praised the other boy, saying that he had “all the elements of an orator, and he predicted that some day he would make his mark in the world.” Either careless or intentionally cruel, Amirus had crushed Clarence.
Darrow seemed to enjoy only two things during his early school years: lunch and recess. Although his mother may have sent him off to school to clear the house, she routinely packed his favorites: “a dinner-pail full of pie and cake, and now and then a piece of bread and butter.” The lunch hour with its recess was “the best time by far of all the day.” He loved not only the food, but also the break, which gave the boys time to play baseball. To say that Darrow had a passion for the game would be an incredible understatement. And his lifelong obsession began in grade school.
“At the threshold of life,” Darrow wrote, he graduated to the Kinsman Academy. Built in 1842 at the end of a nationwide economic downturn, the structure was incomplete. Hence, as Trumbull County history explains, the building was “plain” but “well proportioned, commodious, neatly and substantially built.” Unlike the case in district school, now his teachers were men. Regardless of the change, Darrow had no taste for the curriculum. “As I look back at my days at the district school and the academy, I cannot avoid a feeling of the appalling waste of time.” Indeed, that education prepared him little for what he was to discover in Chicago and did not give him the tools to battle for liberty, freedom, and justice. He hated history, which was taught “not for any special purpose, or, seemingly, with any end in view, but it was necessary that we put in the time.” The students learned the names of kings, presidents, and generals, “but none of it had any relation to our lives.” They studied the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans as well as the English, French, and Germans. “Caesar and Hannibal and Napoleon” might as well have “inhabited Mars, so far as we students were concerned.” Memorizing facts, dates, and people served no purpose. Worse, according to Darrow, it distorted and confused any understanding of the past.
Similarly, Darrow found his study of grammar and pronunciation wasted time since according to him, it was habit and environment that taught appropriate speech. His continued instruction in Latin was “absolutely devoid of practical value,” and learning “Greek was even more useless and wasteful of time and effort.” He said the same for geometry. Apparently, all he got out of the academy were refined baseball skills. As Darrow explained, “we now were older and stronger and more fleet of foot, and took more pride in the way we played.” After graduation in 1872, he left for Allegheny College, the same school his father had briefly attended. He spent only a year there, and learned little, although he was exposed to zoology and geology, which he liked. But the financial panic of 1873 wiped out what little money the family had saved for Darrow. Sounding a bit like Henry Adams, he wrote, “So I abandoned further school life and began my education.”
Darrow returned home from college “a better ball player for my higher education.” Without any other prospects, he went to work with his father. He hated making furniture. It brought up only bad memories from his younger days when his dad had tried to teach him woodworking laced with instruction in Latin. Darrow had cried and fussed to no avail. Returning to the workshop only reinforced his aversion to “manual labor” and his belief that he “was made for better things.”
In the winter of his return to Kinsman, Darrow began teaching in a county district school in Vernon, Ohio, about seven miles south. He earned a dollar a day “and found,” which meant that during the week he boarded with the local families of his pupils. Darrow loved that. Either out of genuine midwestern hospitality or an attempt to impress their child’s teacher, the parents served fine meals, always making sure that he had plenty of pie and cake, which he craved. His students ranged from seven to twenty years, and they adored their teacher, who devised a curriculum around some unorthodox beliefs. Here was a budding iconoclast at work. On the first day, Darrow announced that the students had nothing to fear as he promised not to hit them. There would be no boxing of ears for any reason whatsoever. Then he lengthened the time allotted for lunch hour as well as recess, which he recalled later “made me a hit with the pupils but brought criticism from their parents.” Shrugging off the scorn, he joined in the students’ games, especially baseball when snow had not completely covered the diamond. He taught for three winters. “Whether [his students] learned much or little, they certainly enjoyed” their time at school.
It was during these years teaching in the classroom that Darrow began to read law books. Unlike some of his contemporaries and peers, such as Henry Demarest Lloyd (1847–1903), who became lawyers in order to become reformers, Darrow was never sure why or “what influenced [him] to make this choice.” In fact, he once wrote that he was “never quite sure why [he did] any particular thing, or why [he did] not do it.” As for becoming a lawyer, half jokingly, he said that he “never intended to work with my hands, and no doubt I was attracted by the show of the legal profession.” He had seen lawyers before, especially on the Fourth of July, and was impressed by what he had seen.
In rural America in the nineteenth century, the Fourth of July was the major summer event, and Darrow loved it. He loved it more than Thanksgiving, which President Abraham Lincoln had made a national holiday in 1863. Darrow thought that holiday was simply “stupid.” “No one paid much attention to New Year’s, and generally the people worked that day the same as any other,” he recalled. The only holiday that came close to the Fourth was Christmas, and Darrow did like Christmas. Both holidays were “made for boys.” Somewhat ironically, the freethinking Amirus and Emily celebrated Christmas with their children, and all received gifts from Santa Claus. Although “Christmas was a happy day to us children,” over time Darrow became more and more uncomfortable with the holiday, and not merely because he was a skeptic like his parents. Rather, he realized that the gift giving must have been a drain on his money-strapped parents. In his later years Darrow saw Christmas as a “duty and burden” and nothing more. The Fourth, however, was another matter entirely.
For Darrow and his buddies, the holiday began before daylight. They would gather at the blacksmith’s shop and help themselves to two anvils. His friend who was the tin shop man’s son borrowed a long rod of iron and a charcoal stove. Somehow they also acquired a good amount of gunpowder. They would march just outside town, turn one of the anvils upside down, fill it with the powder, and put the other anvil on top. Then they would trail the powder to a safe distance and use the heated iron rod to ignite it. “A mighty roar reverberated down the valley and up the sides of the hills to their very crests.” After “saluting the citizens whom we especially wished to favor or annoy,” they wandered down to the town square and fired the anvils again. As day broke, they returned home for some sleep and breakfast. Refreshed, Darrow and his gang returned to the town square armed with firecrackers. In this, they were not alone. More daring (and less intelligent) boys demonstrated their prowess by holding in their hands the lit firecrackers until they exploded. Some even held them in their teeth. Darrow commented that “this last exploit was considered dangerous, and generally was done only on condition that we gave a certain number of firecrackers to the boy who took the risk.” The odor of saltpeter hung heavily over the morning, and the adults often rebuked the boys for encouraging rain.
The Independence Day celebration drew most of the county. Crowds of several thousand were not unheard of. At about nine o’clock a military procession of the local militia, fire companies, veterans, band, clergy, and the town council and mayor signaled the start of the day’s events. After drills in the town square, there would be a reading of the Declaration of Independence. Townspeople listened in reverence to the sacred text. As a boy Darrow hated that. It interrupted his fun. Worse, the Declaration was read by Squire Dudley Allen, one of the richest men in town and his father’s friend. Laboriously, Dr. Allen put on his “gold spectacles; then he took a drink of water from a pitcher that stood on a stand on the platform; then he came to the front of the platform and said: ‘Friends and fellow-citizens: The exercises will begin by reading the Declaration of Independence.’” Darrow’s only thought was: When will it end? “Of course, I knew nothing about the Declaration of Independence, and neither did the other boys. We thought it was something Squire Allen wrote, because he always read it, and we did not think anyone else had a right to read the Declaration of Independence.”
After he finished, Dr. Allen introduced the speaker of the day. One of them made an indelible impression upon the young Darrow. He was a lawyer from Warren, the county seat some twenty miles away. What first struck Darrow was his fine horse and fancy buggy, parked at the local hotel. The lawyer seemed not a “bit afraid to stand up there on the platform before the audience.” He wore nice clothes—“a good deal nicer than those of the farmers and other people who came to hear him talk.” In a loud, impassioned voice, he spoke about the “Bridish [sic]” and “waved his hands and arms a great deal.” He spoke about freedom, the war, and the Grand Army of the Republic. “We must stand by the Declaration of Independence and the flag,” he said, “and be ready to fight and to die if we ever had a chance to fight and die.” The farmers roared with approval, and Darrow was left beaming at this “mighty smart man,” a “great man, and thoroughly patriotic.” Darrow went home that night—after the picnic of cold chicken (which he despised); the toasts to the flag, the nation, abolitionism, public education, and the president; and the pyrotechnics—thinking that the Fourth of July “was the best day of all the year.” Later, stuck in Kinsman, teaching those farmers’ children, he decided that he wanted to be that lawyer, not to save the world or aid the meek. Rather, it was his ticket out of that small town in Ohio’s Western Reserve and perhaps to a comfortable life.
To Darrow, becoming a lawyer was a way to become rich and famous, to make a mark, and to have some fun. Becoming the attorney for the damned was yet to be conceived and something that awaited him in Chicago. It certainly was not a product of his upbringing or his immediate surroundings. In Kinsman, lawyering was something of a sport. There the tinner (the same man who lent some of his wares to the boys for the Fourth of July) was also the justice of the peace. Darrow never missed a chance to go over to his shop when a case was on trial. He wrote: “I enjoyed the way the pettifoggers abused each other.” Darrow even tried the game himself. While teaching in the district school, he became active in the Saturday night debates, a weekly Kinsman event. Typically, his sister Mary, who was by then a local schoolteacher, helped him prepare. Darrow consistently took the anti position. He was a lifelong contrarian. He became invigorated after his opponent sat down following an ovation. Then, in front of the hostile crowd of four hundred, Darrow drew great pleasure from, as Irving Stone vividly put it, “flailing against minds that were as sprung and shut as an iron trap over the broken leg of an animal.” In his early debates, Darrow tried to imitate America’s most famous polemicist, Robert G. Ingersoll, who was first known as a political orator and later as a freethinker who earned the appellation “the Great Agnostic.” In the 1860s, Ingersoll had made a career as an outspoken abolitionist, stumping for Republican candidates. After the war, he vigorously defended civil rights and was a constant thorn in President Andrew Johnson’s (1808–1875) side. By the 1870s, Ingersoll had begun speaking on other topics as well, most famously on Tom Paine’s ideology and religious skepticism. At this early juncture, Darrow did not seem as impressed by Ingersoll’s philosophy of life as he later was. Rather, it was his passionate, fluid, logical, witty, and flowery—but not extravagant—style that he wanted to capture. But the drawling, slow midwestern speech did not quite match the Ingersoll method. As Darrow wrote, “I made up my mind that I could not be Ingersoll … the best I could do was to be myself.”
When Darrow announced to the family that he intended to become a lawyer, he found his brother Everett, his sister Mary, and his father quite supportive. In fact, although Darrow did not seem to remember, his father had briefly left the family in 1864 and spent one unsuccessful academic year at the University of Michigan Law School. Both Everett, who was now teaching school in Chicago, and Mary, who was teaching grade school near Kinsman, had spent time at the University of Michigan as well. So, unsurprisingly, they urged Clarence to go there too. One of the stumbling blocks was the cost. But Amirus, Everett, and Mary helped pay the twenty-five-dollar tuition and the twenty-five-dollar fee for coming from out of state. Of his brother and sister, Darrow said: “[T]hey were both as self-sacrificing and kind as any human beings I have ever known.”
Darrow spent one uneventful academic year in Ann Arbor. In 1878, he moved to Youngstown, Ohio, and began working for a lawyer’s office. Once he had learned the ropes, he appeared at the Tod House Bar for his examinations. The lawyers, whom Darrow described as “all good fellows” who “wanted to help us through,” were happy to see him. Like the freethinkers Abraham Lincoln and Robert Ingersoll, he passed without much formal training and became a member of the Ohio bar that day. Later, writing in the 1930s, he reflected on how much the bar associations had changed, arguing that the bar had become dedicated “to keep[ing] new members out of the closed circle.” He continued: “The Lawyers’ Union is about as anxious to encourage competition as the Plumbers’ Union is, or the United States Steel Co. or the American Medical Association.” He maintained that this hurt only the poor, who lacked the means to attain a fancy education or to forge the political connections that propel one’s legal career. Regardless, in 1878, Darrow, now twenty-one, returned to Kinsman a regular lawyer, not a crusading one, who with some luck would address approving Fourth of July crowds. He showed up at the octagonal house to tell his widowed father the good news. Amirus, now fifty-nine, “was delighted, and possibly surprised, at my good luck.… Poor man, he was probably thinking what he could have done had Fortune been so kind to him.” Neighbors too were proud and similarly surprised: “They could not conceive that a boy whom they knew, and who was brought up in their town, could possibly have the ability and learning that they thought necessary to the practice of law.” They were so wrong.
Copyright © 2011 by Andrew E. Kersten
Meet the Author
Andrew E. Kersten is the Frankenthal Professor of History in the Department of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He received his PhD in American history from the University of Cincinnati in 1997. He is the author of Race, Jobs, and the War: The FEPC in the Midwest, Politics and Progress: The American State and Society since the Civil War, A. Philip Randolph: A Life in the Vanguard, and Labor’s Home Front: The American Federation of Labor during the Second World War. He has also written about Wisconsin history and the history of the city of Green Bay.
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